Monday, 18 May 2015

Alex Halter

I first met Alex Halter at the Moussy Le Neuf ½ Marathon, just north of Paris, in June 1979.  I was running for Spiridon GB, an organisation that supplied good runners (plus me if the real quality wasn't available) to bolster the standard of fields in European races, all expenses paid; Alex had become a friend of the wonderfully eccentric race organiser Yves Seigneuric and brought down a group of runners from his home city of Rotterdam.  After the race there was a magnificent hog roast feast washed down with the local vino, the whole town was involved.  Thus started a friendship that lasted nearly 36 years until I received the devastating news this week that Alex had succumbed to pancreatic cancer.  From diagnosis to death was just 11 weeks - until February he was still running five days a week, oblivious to what was happening to his body.  His funeral was on what would have been his 69th birthday.

Alex and José in 1994

Some memories: later in 1979, at Alex's invitation, I crossed the North Sea from Harwich to Hook van Holland (a journey I was to get to know very well) to run in two races in Holland, a 10 miler (Sep) and a cross country race (Dec) - both with my great Australian buddy, George Thomas (another who died too young), who was working in Amsterdam at the time - and our friendship was underway.  He and his then wife Hilda entertained us royally; their two children Nicole (7) and Tosca (5) were an absolute delight.  The girls are, of course, now into their 40's, in recent years we've often laughed about the great time we had when they were young children.  So strong had our bond become that I went back out to Rotterdam in 1980 to join Alex and his friends in the drive down to Paris (and back) for a repeat effort at Moussy, as well as more partying.  (A crazy journey but remember this was before cheap flights and Eurotunnel and it seemed the sensible thing to do at the time.)

In 1980 Alex invited me to bring out a four man team to compete in the inaugural Barendrecht 100km track relay near Rotterdam.  Not really knowing what to expect we decided to give it a go (aforementioned George plus Steve Rowland and John Pratt joined me).  Unfortunately Steve succumbed quite early to Achilles problems so the three of us struggled on with a mixture of 400, 800, 1200 and 1600's, eventually finishing 2nd in 5h 26m.  It was the start of quite a relationship with the race.  Ranelagh won in each of the next four years in times of 5.01, 4.50, 4.51, 4.46, which if you 'do the math' equates to two hour marathon pace!  We stuck to 400's throughout; in our record breaking year I averaged 68.4 for each of my 62 laps, with our fastest man, Simon Collingridge, a little faster.  The parties after these races were always very special thanks to Alex and his friends, especially in the last two years when some Belgian teams arrived armed with cases of strong beer!

In 1981 it was my turn to return the compliment and invite Alex over to England.  I was still living at home in March 1981 (bought my first flat in Worcester Park a month later for £17k) but my parents kindly offered to put up Alex and a couple of his friends, brothers Jim and Aad Boer.  We all ran the first London Marathon in the rain, a great experience, and partied into the night with Ranelagh friends (and my parents).  Just a couple of months later I stayed at Alex's when running the Rotterdam Marathon in a downpour (11th in 2.29, having been sick in the night before, chez Alex) won by John Graham in 2.09.

In subsequent years our paths crossed on a regular basis.  I ran numerous races in Holland - the Papendrecht 15km being a favourite - and Alex plus his lovely new wife José came over to run and holiday in England (the last time being the Cirencester 10km just a couple of years ago).  Thanks to mutual friends Henryk Paskal and J Pinto, both of whom we met at Moussy, we were invited to races in Poland and Portugal; Alex then joined me in both New York and Barbados for our Sweat Shop tours.  Somewhere I have a lovely photograph of Alex, myself and a good French friend Auguste Lespinas running on the beach in Barbados in our Ranelagh singlets.  Tragically both Alex and Auguste, a top ultra-marathoner, have now succumbed to pancreatic cancer in their 60's despite being running fit and generally healthy.  It can be a cruel world.
Alex with the author and Natalie in 1994

Alex came to our wedding in 1984 (another attendee, Steve Rowland, dragged him off to do the East London ½ Marathon the next day nursing quite a hangover), where he met my godfather, Ian Beers (sadly no longer with us), a French Horn player in the Royal Philharmonic orchestra, who had Dutch ancestry.  He also got on really well with all my family, not least my father (also, alas, departed), a fellow chef.  One of the reasons Alex loved coming over to England was to sample dad's roast lamb.

When I was coaching in the noughties, Alex helped out by finding, through his contacts, some quality races in Holland for my charges: Wendy Nicholls (with Justin [who could forget the Goth bar evening?] and Poppy in tow) twice ran the Papendrecht 15km, losing out only to Kenyans, and also ran the infamous Rotterdam Marathon in a heatwave - the race was cancelled because of conditions after 3½ hours - where she finished an impressive 9th and first non-African; whilst Michelle Ross-Cope bookended her team bronze medal at the marathon at the European Championships in Barcelona by twice winning the highly competitive Schrool 10km in north Holland.

An example of the true character of the man: my mother, now 91, has lived in a nursing home for the last 15 years since dad died - she's got MS and is wheelchair bound - and casually mentioned to Alex when he visited her a few years ago that she put any postcards she received onto a small noticeboard in her room.  Alex said that he'd send her a card on one of his running trips (in recent years he worked with a Dutch operator that takes runners to all the major races in the world).  Not only did he keep his promise but he continued to send postcards from wherever he was in the world, about half a dozen a year, which delighted mum.  What a man.

Alex had a major influence on my life in general and running in particular; I was privileged to have known him and the lovely José.  His loss is so sad and will impact on me for a long time to come.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Life sentence

Short termism is rife in society in general (think politics for example) and, from the perspective of Wrighty's Running blogs, running in particular.  As I'm sure I've groaned on about in previous posts, today's athletes don't appear to take the long-term view; it's all about a quick fix, getting ready for the next race, rather than structured planning going forward.  However, this particular posting has nothing to do with this vexing subject but is about the long term.

As far as I can work out, I have life membership of two organisations.  Out of choice - and cost-effectiveness - I took out life membership of Raynes Park Old Boys Association, my alma mater, although now re-named Former Pupils Society as the school now accepts girls(!); I am also a lifer with the Sunday Times Wine Club, taken out following a bribe of extra bottles of wine if I signed up (I was already a member).

My debut for Cirencester in 1990
To these two august organisations can now be added a third.  I recently received an e-mail from my local running club, Cirencester AC, with a receipt for my annual subscription.  I found this rather odd as I don't have a standing order set-up and I hadn't paid (always was slow!).  Upon closer reading I noticed that the receipt was for £0.00.  A second e-mail followed almost immediately: because I've been a member for 25 years I automatically become a life member and don't pay subs.  (Quite how that impacts on the levy payable to English Athletics I'm not sure.)  Woop, woop, how exciting, my running is now 'free'.  Such is the state of my fitness and health it's hard to call it running these days but I persevere.

There's an irony to this life membership at Cirencester.  I feel that I'm still an outsider and a newcomer to the club - having joined when I moved to Glos. from London in 1990 - because I first joined a running club back in 1974, yes 41 years ago, and am still a member of Ranelagh Harriers.  I think I might be a vice-president but I'm not a life member.  Thus I'm still paying out subs for my 41 year-old club but not my baby 25 year-old.  I'm not bitter, Ranelagh is far bigger and has been going for 135 years; Cirencester was born out of the 80's running boom and is only 30 years old.

Still, Old Boys, Wine and Running should all keep me happy in my old age. 

Monday, 16 March 2015

Grand Slam

Surveying the mass of black vests circling the lumpy field opposite Sparrow's Den near Hayes, Kent I shared Phil Killingley's fear that this was too much to ask.  Not only was Ranelagh trying to win an unprecedented mob match grand slam, four victories in a season, but attempting to do it in the tougher year, with away fixtures at Orion and Blackheath Harriers, the two historically strongest clubs.  Still, thanks to captain Phil's phenomenal efforts a large mob had made it over to Blackheath's superb clubhouse on a Sunday morning, unheard of in mob match history - Blackheath have decided that they get a larger turnout on Sundays, presumably the result of the parkrun effect - although it made my journey easier despite having to leave Cirencester early.

From the start line announcements before the two club crys that rang out along the valley, it appeared that Ranelagh outnumbered Blackheath slightly, both clubs impressively turning out over 60 runners, but was the mix sufficient to get enough near the front to get the scoreboard rolling so to speak?  On that initial 800m circuit it didn't look good: second claimer Jon Pepper was already stretching away for Ranelagh but then it was a mass of black vests chasing him down.  (Phil later stated that his heart sank when he saw the initial position profile.)

For those of us in the 'engine room', the domestiques in cycling parlance, all we could do was get our blue vests ahead of as many black ones then let the maths happen.  For me that was difficult: after 40 years of mobs I knew the course but as well as being fearful of my ability to keep going on what is without doubt the toughest course on the circuit, I also had the advantage of knowing about the bottleneck created by a stile after just half a mile, so I started 'fast' purely to avoid a queue.  This worked well and with a modicum of fitness built up from regular easy lunchtime running for a few weeks despite ongoing pain in my hip from my Piriformis Syndrome, I was able to retain my position for the first few miles.  Once the brutal hills kicked in I knew that I would go backwards but it was just a question of ploughing on through the mud, over the stiles and up & down the steep undulations.

The reception along the finishing straight was something I'd never before experienced at a mob: all the Ranelagh top finishers were lined up cheering each blue vest approaching; once I'd done my bit I joined in cheering the rest of the team.  It was clearly nip & tuck but there was a big roar when half a dozen Ranelagh runners finished in line.

Phil and the rest of us were still nervous in the tea room awaiting the result.  Eventually the Blackheath President stood up to announce the final score: with some pauses to stretch out the unbearable tension, he eventually gave the news that we craved, a win for Ranelagh and a first ever grand slam in the 134 year history of the club.  What an achievement and well done Phil and his assistants, magnificent.

Phil Killingley with Blackheath President Dick Griffin
and the famous Pelling-Ratcliffe trophy.

In forty years of churning out four mobs a season, I have never experienced the camaraderie pervading the team in the way that it currently exists.  I've finished in every position from 1 to 44 (except 36, must try to engineer that next winter), as well as some more ignominious ones, but my 47th on Hayes Common will always remain my most important contribution to the club in these wonderful old fixtures.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Holy Trinity

There has been some interesting discussion recently on social media about the relative merits of a sub-30 10km against a sub-50 10 mile, which is the harder of the two.  No real conclusion was reached.  Add in a sub-2.20 marathon and you have, perhaps, what could be called the Holy Trinity of real quality running performance indicators.

Sadly, I just missed out on all three: best times, 30.50; 51.00 and 2.23.14.  One conclusion that was reached in the discussion was that beating these times is definitely an indication of a quality athlete rather than just a good club runner, so I have to see myself in the latter category which is something I've always accepted.

There is certainly a connection with these times, other than just being barrier breaking.  If you punch in a 30.00 10k into McMillan's pace chart , the equivalent times come out at 50.09 and 2.20.45.

Could I / should I have done better and joined the top club?  Yes and no is my answer.  At 10k I think I would have struggled to have bettered 30.30 even though I rarely ran the distance in the 80's when at my fittest.  (Five miles was the historical preferred distance.)  I never had the basic speed to run any faster than 4.50 miling.  Five minute miling for 10 miles?  Well, my 51m was done on a hilly course in Wimbledon - three times up Wimbledon Hill from the tennis courts - so there was definitely more time to be sliced off, but again, sustaining sub-5's for that distance was probably always going to be beyond my shuffling running style!

The marathon though is a different matter.  As an endurance based runner the longer distance always suited me, my favourite distance was emphatically 20 miles, which I ran competitively rather than as a build-up to a marathon.  My best marathon of 2.23 was achieved at the age of 26 on the notoriously tough New York course in a torrential downpour; it also involved walking inside the last mile!  I was on 2.20 pace for most of the race but the hills in Central Park just tipped me over the edge.  For various reasons I never ran another competitive marathon although was undoubtedly a lot fitter two years later when I opted in the spring for the famous Finchley '20', which incorporated the Southern Champs, and the Isle of Wight Marathon (incorporating the National Road Runners Club Championship).  I won both but often wonder what may have transpired at London that year where I drove the lead timing vehicle instead!!

So my conclusion is simple, one out of three was attainable but never the Holy Trinity of all three. There is no simple answer to which is the hardest as it really depends on the background of the runner.  I think McMillan has it spot on, they are all equally difficult to achieve.  What I'd love to see is some of today's club runners achieving these targets.  They are very difficult and seemingly out of sight for all but the very best, but they are achievable for the club runner with aspirations and should be seen as a real tangible target.

Then there is the two hour marathon ...

(For what it's worth I think this will happen but it may now take longer than previously thought because of so much current conjecture about how clean the East African runners are.)

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Passage of Time

Athletics Weekly did a piece this week on Steve Jones breaking the world marathon record in Chicago as it is now 30 years since he famously ran 2.08.05.  For reasons that will become apparent this kick-started my memory bank.

Here's a statistic that will be mind blowing to all.  Firstly, bear in mind that it took 15 years for the world record to come down a mere 28 seconds, from Derek Clayton's 2.08.33 in 1969 to Jones' mark. Now digest the fact that in 30 years Jones' 2.08.05 has been beaten 615 times and the world record is now 2.02.57 (Berlin a couple of weeks ago).  Nearly all of these times having been run by either Kenyans (about 90%) or Ethiopians.  To say the event has been hijacked by East Africans is an understatement in the extreme.

The feat of Jones breaking the WR was big news and featured highly on all the main news bulletins in 1984. It was therefore quite an event when a bunch of us from Ranelagh stumbled across him just seven days later.  We had a decent pack of runners in the early 80's and we often used to pick races some distance away for the chance of picking up a team prize and having a few beers.  Thus a bunch of us we trekked down the M4 to run the Swindon Half Marathon.  We arrived at the school registration hall to a buzz of excitement, had our arrival been leaked to the local press, did our reputation go before us?  No, Steve Jones had decided to run the race.

from left at a race in Holland: Collingridge, Wright, Hedger, Pautard

It was a most surreal experience running around the bleak industrial estates of Swindon with the newly-crowned world record holder.  There were six of us in the lead pack for the first few miles before Jones eased away to win in around 66 minutes.  The team race was very exciting as we (Ranelagh Harriers) won by a single point with 3rd (Simon Collingridge), 4th (DW chasing down my flatmate) and 6th (Steve Pautard) ahead of Swindon Harriers (2nd, 5th, 7th).  Jones was running for the RAF; not only did he do the Half just seven days after Chicago but he'd also run a xc race for the RAF in the week.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Commonwealth Games & Piriformis Syndrome

With my piriformis syndrome injury (look it up) and subsequent two broken toes (don't ask) keeping me off the gallops, there was plenty of time to take in the Commonwealth Games on tv.  It has been quite a summer of sport on the box - Test cricket, Tour de France, World Cup, Open Golf - but it's hard to beat the raw nature of competitive athletics, that's if the BBC had deigned to actually show some, rather than dwell on labourious studio chat with inane grinning and ill-informed comment (the magnificent Michael Johnson aside).  Steve Cram was clearly annoyed when not being able to introduce the 800m athletes, even though they were on screen, because gobby Gabby was talking up the 'unbeatable' Rudisha.  (I say again ... ill-informed.)    Whilst on the BBC subject, I switched across to the red button a few times, in the hope of actually seeing some live athletics, only to have to listen to the appalling commentary of Kathryn Merry, who I'd have expected to be far more lucid.

Highlight for me was Shelley's superb pb win in the marathon, leaving a trail of Africans in his wake down the road.  Ever since the late George Thomas took me under his wing back in the 1970's, I have been an advocate of the Australian training methods.  They don't over-complicate things down under but merely decide what best structured weekly training suits the athlete and then stick to it 12 months a year, every year.  Sessions are hard, long runs are long but the other mileage-filling runs are at a very easy pace.  The top runners then prepare for specific races - Shelley shied away from the big city spring marathons this year - and perform at their best when needed.

On the track it was a bit worrying that no Britons won a gold medal (I don't count relays although where did Hudson-Smith appear from on that last stage?) at what is generally not the highest standard, notwithstanding the Jamaican sprinters and Kenyan distance runners.  There were some cracking races, though, with the men's 10,000 and 800 being particularly good to watch.  Where the BBC (not Cram or Johnson) got the idea that Rudisha only had to turn up to win the latter race is beyond me.  Amos had not only thrashed Rudisha in the recent Monaco Diamond League event in an impressive 1.42 and bits but was also only just behind the great man in his world record at the London Olympics (a race I viewed again this week as I watched the fascinating BBC3 documentary on Rudisha).  I was astonished to find out from old chum Rob Wise afterwards that Amos was a ridiculous 6-4 odds to win, money for old rope.

Glasgow seemed to put on a good show overall; the great British public never cease to amaze me with their attendance at sporting events.  In any other country the morning athletics would be sparsely populated with paying spectators, the events after all are just clearing out the dead wood before the main event, particularly in championships such as the CG where the standard drops alarmingly.  Yet each morning the stands were full.

One final thought: in the cycle road race on the last day of the Games, Geraint Thomas had a puncture in the last couple of miles, having opened up a big lead on the last lap.  It took an age for the neutral supplier to fit a new wheel but eventually he got going again and held on to win a thoroughly deserved gold medal.  The silver/bronze medal cyclists closed within 20 seconds or so of him before he got going and I wonder whether they would have let him win had they caught him.  It would have been a wonderful way for the CG to finish and I have a feeling that this may have happened, such is the mutual respect of the cycling fraternity.  Sadly we shall never know.

To finish, a snap from my last race.  I was already struggling with my hip problem but as it was a local race and I wanted to at least use the fitness I'd garnered over recent months before another lay-off, I decided to run, starting slowly and moving through the field.  It went well, especially overtaking Wendy, also taking it easy, after 3km.  My last run for a couple of months.


Friday, 30 May 2014

Back on the roads

The awards were presented by ascending age groups, eventually the moment came ...
The winner 

"first V55 and overall race winner ..."

there was an audible gasp from the assembled throng as I edged through to collect the trophy, grey hairs flowing in the wind.  Yes, an outright road race victory, my first in 20 years, well past my sell-by date but all the sweeter for that. I'd won the Horton Spring Bull Run, a lovely 4.3 mile race through undulating country lanes near Chipping Sodbury.

Two youngsters went haring off at the start, they told me afterwards that they clocked the first mile in 5.10, which is why I was nowhere near them.  I ambled along in their wake but quite quickly realised that one was quickly coming back to me; once I'd gone past him and got into a good rhythm, it was clear that the leader was also coming back. Sure enough I caught him at two miles, ran straight past him and didn't dare to look back for the rest of the race.  I won by two minutes!

Prior to Horton I ran two hard races on the roads.  Having enjoyed some off-roaders, I wanted to see how my fitness translated into standard distances.  The Maidenhead '10' has been going for 61 years and attracts a good field; this was going to be an excellent test so I decided to go out at a good pace rather that ease into the race and play 'catch-up'.  The plan worked well; it was so good to be in a competitive group early on - albeit a little frightening as I was unsure about whether I could sustain the pace - and the competitive juices flowed.  A final time of 60.54 was far better than anticipated (albeit a long way from the old training run adage of 'if it's an hour it must be 10 miles') and a real boost.

Two weeks later I lined up for the Worcester ½ Marathon at Sixways rugby stadium.  Recovery from Maidenhead hadn't been easy and I felt weary from the outset on a bumpy, rural course.  Apart from struggling on a couple of the hills, I maintained a fairly consistent pace and finished strongly for 6th place overall and another age group victory.  It's sad that a time of 82 minutes can be so high up in such a large field (c 800 finishers) but this old man isn't complaining.